Cinematography of “Ready or Not” – interview with Brett Jutkiewicz

February 26th, 2020

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Brett Jutkiewicz. In this interview he talks about how he chooses the productions he works on, the role of the cinematographer and the hidden complexities of it, the dynamics of working on feature films with two directors, and the technological advancements in the lighting equipment in the last few years. Around these topics and more, Brett dives deep into his work on last summer’s delightfully wicked “Ready or Not”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Brett: I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, about an hour outside of New York City. My father had a Hi8 camcorder that I would use to make little movies with my friends and as a teenager I started getting into skateboarding and making skate videos. I would always shoot them and edit them myself which at the time involved transferring it to VHS tapes, recording different parts of the tape onto another tape to make a really basic edit.

In high school I started getting into still photography. I did a lot of black and white photography – we had a darkroom in our high school and I took a photography class that made me think more about imagery in general, both as a method to capture and document things but also for the first time creating images that had a certain aesthetic value to them.

I went to college at Boston University and started as a computer science major because I thought it would be good for getting a job, but about a semester into that I became friends with some film students and realized this thing that I was passionate about in terms of photography and making videos could actually be something that I could do as a career so I took an elective film history course just to see what it was about and I completely fell in love with it and joined the film program.

I shot a lot of short films in school and after I graduated I moved to New York City with some of the people that were in my class at BU. I started working in New York and collaborating with them on shorts and became friends with other young filmmakers on the scene at the time. There was a great energy of people being creative and helping each other make films, and around that time the first DSLRs that could shoot high quality video came out, which opened up a new world for making cheap independent films. I shot my first feature about a year out of school, which was “The Pleasure of Being Robbed”, directed by Josh Safdie. It was this super scrappy film we shot on super-16mm with a crew of about 3 people, but it wound up premiering at Cannes and that was kind of the beginning of my professional filmmaking career.

Cinematography of “Lily” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Is there anything particularly surprising on unexpected for you when you join a new production, a new director, a new set of people?

Brett: There’s always something to learn, and that’s what’s special about filmmaking. No two productions are ever the same. There’s always a different challenge. A new person who comes in with a different vision. What is cool is that as a cinematographer I get to collaborate with all these different directors who have different styles and different visions.

After graduating from college I continued working with some of the same filmmakers I’d met there, so it wasn’t an abrupt transition. I worked as a production assistant a few times just out of college, and I remember being totally in awe of the machine of these bigger movies with $4-5M budgets, which at the time seemed enormous. It was interesting to see how complicated it was, how many pieces had to fit together, and how people kept things streamlined across different departments.

Kirill: There are different ways of telling the same story, in words and in images, and everybody has their own stylistic approach to it. When you are choosing your next production, do you want to be aligned on the sensibilities with your major collaborators? Do you want there to be a little bit of a tension in the process?

Brett: A little bit of tension and back-and-forth is good. Right after reading the script and before talking to the director, I always come in with my own ideas, a preliminary vision, and feelings about the script and how I might want to translate that visually. But the director might come in with different ideas and differing viewpoints, so I think you collaborate to distill the best of it, obviously always with deference to the director. I would expect always that there would be some sort of tension and back-and-forth. I think that’s why directors hire cinematographers – to bring their own vision and creativity to the project.

Some directors are a lot more precise about how they want the film to look than others. I’ve been pretty fortunate to work with a lot of directors who are very open to collaboration, and I think that collaboration is an important part of filmmaking in general. There are so many people that are working to create this apparently seamless vision. It’s important to have these different people who have different viewpoints to be able to bounce ideas off of each other.

And a lot of this happens in prep. By the time I get on set and am rolling the camera, it’s definitely important to be on the same page with the director. There’s so much to deal with. The director is dealing with the cast, the producers and the studio. I’m dealing with my crew, the camera and the lighting. It’s hard to take time and energy away from that to resolve any sort of tension or conflict. Obviously there’s a lot of adapting to different things that you haven’t planned for – but having that foundation in prep is really important.

Cinematography of “The Preppie Connection” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Is it much different when you work on commercials or music videos?

Brett: I do a little bit of everything. I like the variety of it. Everything flexes different muscles, and everything has its own value. I might do things on a commercial that I wouldn’t get to do on a feature. It might be because of budgetary constraints, or creative constraints, or something else.

A lot of shooting in the feature world focuses on the story and the actors, and rightly so. You don’t necessarily have that in a commercial or a music video. You can sometimes be a little more free to experiment or try different things. That’s part of what I love about the job too. Not only that films are different from each other, but the actual work that I’m doing could be a commercial one day, a music video the week after, followed by a feature.

At a base level, there’s a lot of similarities for me as a cinematographer. But it gives me an opportunity to think differently and create in a different way. It informs everything that I do.

Kirill: You’ve touched on these different aspects of your job – the artistic vision, the technology, managing people, managing the schedule and the budget. When you talk about what you do for a living with somebody who is not in your field, how difficult is it to convey this complexity?

Brett: It’s interesting. The majority of people who watch movies probably don’t have any idea how complex of a process it is to create what’s on the screen. I think there’s some distance between the movie itself and the fact that people actually had to make it.

So when I talk to somebody who’s not in the field, the usual reaction is they are surprised to know the details of what my job is and what goes into creating the films or tv shows that they’re seeing. I enjoy doing what I do, so I enjoy talking about it and it’s not ever frustrating to try to explain it to someone. I’ll say that I’m a cinematographer, and then judging by their reaction I’ll know whether or not they know what that means. I’ll say that I’m in charge of all of the lighting and the camera team, working with the director to create the image that’s on the screen.

I wouldn’t say that it’s a difficult thing for me to describe. It’s nice to be able to share that information and people are usually receptive and intrigued. It seems so foreign for somebody who’s not in the film world, someone with maybe a normal day job, to hear that I spent three weeks working from 6PM to 6AM five days a week because we had night scenes to film.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Do you want the average, so to speak, viewer to be thinking about this complexity when they go and watch a movie that you did?

Brett: I don’t think they should be thinking about it during the movie. I never leave a movie until after the credits are over. So many people do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s all these people working to bring them what they are watching so I think it wouldn’t hurt for people to know, understand and appreciate that. But it shouldn’t be something that they’re necessarily thinking about while they’re watching the movie.

Kirill: I see a lot of mid-budget dramatic storytelling moving from the world of feature films into episodic / streaming shows in the last 5-6 years. Do you see that it’s more difficult to find interesting stories for you to work on in features?

Brett: Maybe it’s slightly more difficult because of the saturation of films and content in general. High-end digital camera equipment has come on to the scene in such a big way, and in many ways it has democratized filmmaking. A lot more people are making movies, and that’s great. They can make movies for significantly less money than they could 20 or even 10 years ago, and that’s good.

But it does certainly lead to there being a lot of films out there. You wind up relying on film festivals a little bit more to guide what you know is good, or what is considered to be resonating at the moment. It is not necessarily the best way to make your decisions about what movie you want to see, but sometimes it’s difficult to find these small movies that might be great. They might not get into Sundance or Toronto, they might go straight to streaming, they might be hard to promote and get the word out.

It’s a lot easier to make a movie now, but probably a lot more difficult to get noticed.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Ready Or Not”, what drew you into it?

Brett: I really loved the script. My agent sent it me and I just had a blast reading it. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge horror fan, but I do enjoy them, and the ones that I’m drawn to usually have some kind of dark kind of humor mixed into them – something like Polanski, Zulawski and other Eastern European directors.

The “Ready Or Not” script had a lot of these tongue-in-cheek elements, not taking itself too seriously, but also being legitimately scary and thrilling at points. I had a Skype interview with the directors and we got along really well. I brought some ideas to the conversation that they were very receptive to and we shared some of the same reference points, and they hired me to shoot it.

Kirill: Was it much different to work with two directors instead of one?

Brett: Surprisingly, I’ve done 3-4 other films before that had two directors, so it’s something that I’m used to. But it is different than only having one.

In my experience with two directors, usually one of them is more focused on the actors and the other is more focused on the camera. On “Ready Or Not”, Tyler Gillett was working more closely with me, and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin was working closer with the actors, although there was plenty of overlap. I’ve been pretty fortunate in situations with two directors that have been very much on the same page. Having more than one deciding voice has the potential to cause some issues, but on this film there was no problem with it at all, they worked seamlessly together and it was very collaborative between the three of us as well as with Chad Villella, Tyler and Matt’s partner in Radio Silence.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: If you go back to the original ideas that you pitched to the directors and compete that to the final cut, how different these two ended up being?

Brett: I think it wound up being pretty similar. We outlined a few broad strokes in our initial conversation and then throughout prep: we wanted warm atmospheric feeling that at the same time felt a little sinister. Normally you would think of warm candlelit interiors as calm and safe, but we tried to turn that on its head a bit. We wanted to embrace the old world, old money feel of the family. We talked about having the camera at the beginning of the film being more fluid, almost like another presence in the house, that then winds up breaking down into more handheld while we’re following Grace who’s just broken this entire ritual apart. She’s broken the family and their control, and that transition was something that we talked about really early on. And it’s definitely in the final cut.

We obviously adjusted a lot of things as we finalized our locations and on the day once the actors brought their ideas in, but the broad strokes were very much there from the beginning.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Most of the action is happening inside this family house. Did you want to find different angles and perspectives on it to keep it more interesting for me as a viewer?

Brett: That that was the intention. We shot in two different mansions and made it seem like it was the same house. And then the very last scene at the end of the film was shot in a third location – for the practical blood effects. The majority of it was filmed in a place called Parkwood outside of Toronto. We shot in every room and every hallway that we could just to try to capture the grandeur and the expansiveness of the home and also to make it feel slightly disorienting and believable Grace would get lost in it. We didn’t want things to seem too familiar coming back and forth to them.

These practical locations definitely had some restrictions. One of them is an historic home, and another is a museum, and there was a lot of sensitive artwork in there but I think we got a lot of benefit from shooting it this way instead of building a set. We had all this amazing detail and all these strange little rooms that give the film a great sense of scale and texture that we wouldn’t have been able to build on our budget.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Most of the story is happening during one night, in and around the house, some of it in candle light, some lit with handheld lanterns, some lit with outside house lights. What’s your experience with the recent advancements in lighting technology?

Brett: The advancement in LED lighting in the last 5 years has been enormous. I did a Civil War period movie called “Men Go to Battle” in 2014, and we had a lot of firelight effects. Those were all homemade rigs of household bulbs, flicker dimmers, circuits etc to replicate fire light or candle light. And here on “Ready Or Not” we used SkyPanels with all sorts of effects and control over flicker, low and high points.

We used those for all the fireplaces. There was no real fire there. We would shove our lights in there, and then post added the fire itself with VFX. These are amazing tools, especially on a tight budget. They’re not inexpensive, but you can do so much with them, and they are really flexible. It saved us a lot on this film. It let us work a lot more quickly, giving precise and easy control over the light levels and effects.

There were restrictions on where we could place real candles, and they were always supplemented by LED tubes that were hung out of frame to fill out the room. I’m a big fan of the LED lights, and the control and the quality of them now is really fantastic.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: In one of your interviews you said that exterior wood scenes during night time are “harrowing” from the perspective of how you light them. And here on “Ready Or Not” you have Grace running out of the main house and trying to escape the grounds into the woods in the middle of the night. What was your approach there?

Brett: I tend to use moonlight as a lighting source only if there is absolutely nothing else that could be illuminating the scene or if there’s intentionally story-wise nothing else around to motivate light. On “Ready Or Not” the night exterior lighting is usually motivated by light sources that were outside the house, on the grounds, or streetlights, like when she’s climbing through the fence. I put those streetlights on the road to break up the background and to motivate whatever light was hitting the subject at that moment. I just looked for ways to motivate the source.

The scene where they crash into the ravine has this greenish-yellow light washing over everything, and I thought that it could have been a street light from the road that you don’t see. I thought the color was nice for that scene and it felt good looking at it. I believed that it could be something off-screen somewhere, and hopefully that came across.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: As you spend your day working on such a scene, obsessing over the details on how to set the right mood, which color to choose etc, is it easy to flick that switch off when you’re done for the evening as you go back to recharge for the next day?

Brett: It’s not easy to turn it off. Usually when I get back after the day, at least for a little while before I go to sleep I’m thinking about what’s coming the next day. I’m looking at the call sheet and thinking through the scenes to refresh and prepare myself and looking at dailies. I wouldn’t say it keeps me up at night, but it basically never stops. It’s the constant consideration and the constant thinking about all sorts of things, from creative to logistical for every hour of the day – until I close my eyes, wake up and do it again the next day.

Kirill: Is there a particular scene or sequence that was the most memorable for you?

Brett: The car crash comes to mind, when the car is rolling and the characters flip upside down in the car. We were shooting it outside at night and it was about 20 degrees – the special effects team rigged the picture car onto what they called a rotisserie rig to roll it over with the actors inside. It was a challenge to rig the cameras and design the lighting to make sure as they rolled upside down we could still get light into the right places and on top of that do everything safely. We were fighting sunrise trying to get the shot and then of course at 4AM it started snowing which complicated things even more since it couldn’t be snowing in the scene. That was probably one of the coldest and longest nights on the film and we got the shot done right as the sun was coming up. Big thanks to my great Toronto crew for that one.

Also exploding bodies sequence at the end of the film was an interesting challenge. We were working with the VFX team, and it was so precise. The producers were originally hesitant about doing practical blood splatter, since it would get everywhere and wouldn’t match for a take two, but the directors were adamant about doing as much of the effect practically as we could.

We had to shoot chronologically, so that as more and more people exploded, the room would get more and more bloody. There was no way to just clean up the room and go back in time once the blood was everywhere. That was one of the first things we did, on Day 2 or Day 3 of the film. Everybody was still getting their footing, and we had this huge ending sequence to shoot early on. The process was stressful, but I think the end result is great. It’s definitely one of those things that kept me up at the night before we shot it.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: How do you protect the equipment from the splatter getting all over it?

Brett: They wound up adding maybe one or two camera splatters in post. Everything was covered in plastic, and all the crew was in ponchos. We had clear filters that we would put in front of the lens, and we would constantly be rotating them out after every take to clean that and put a new one in. There was plastic draped everywhere else in the room, as we didn’t want other parts of the room to get bloody. Dealing with that was a slow process.

Kirill: How do you approach working with digital extensions? How early do those conversations happen, and how do you account for that in your preparations and maybe on set?

Brett: The conversation started very early on. I had 5 weeks of prep time on location before we started shooting. We met with the VFX supervisor during the first week to start talking through the scenes that we knew would have some sort of visual effect element to it. The biggest thing in prep with that is that we really had to storyboard some sequences to let the VFX team and the art department know how much they had to build and how much would be extended in post.

Going into it, the directors’ style and my own preferred style was to do as much of it practically as we could, with blood effects and things like that. We wanted to try as much as we could to do that stuff practically. And that conversation kept evolving throughout prep. Script changes and running into the realities of the art department etc. I don’t think we ever had to sacrifice anything in the way that we wanted to approach it, based on VFX or anything like that. But there was definitely a consideration all the way through.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Probably “Ready Or Not” is still fresh in your memory, but as you look at your earlier productions, what stays with you? Do you remember the good parts, the bad parts or maybe some mix of the two?

Brett: Looking back at projects, I have probably a more romantic view then maybe I had in the moment of shooting them.

But also, in general, I feel very fortunate to do what I do. I love the job and even in the moments when things are difficult, stressful and exhausting sometimes I’ll stop, look around at all these people in my department and other departments, look at all this equipment and feel that I can’t believe that this is what I get to do for a living. I’m grateful to be involved in these projects, to be doing something creative and fulfilling and working with all these amazing people. I can’t complain too much.

Kirill: If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you still be doing something in this field?

Brett: Definitely, no question. I would still want to shoot movies and work on these kinds of projects. Maybe I could take some more time off when I wanted to [laughs]. But I really love what I do, and would want to do it regardless of whether I needed to financially or otherwise.

Kirill: What defines success for you? Do you look at critical reception at Rotten Tomatoes, look at how much it’s making at the box office, or perhaps what your peers in the industry are saying about the work?

Brett: I definitely pay attention to all of that, mostly because I want to see the films I shoot do well, for the director’s sake and for my sake as well. The more people that are able to see it, the better – and the more validated I am by the work that I’m doing. But I don’t think that I consider that necessarily as a measure of my success on the project.

It’s more personal for me. I want to feel that I did work that I’m proud of, to know what I overcame to do it, to know that I forged these relationships with the people that I’m working with. Success for me is feeling good about what I brought to the project, and what I put into it – regardless if that winds up translating into box office sales, big festival premieres or wide releases. All that stuff is great, and I would love to have all of my projects to be successful in that way, but I don’t think that that’s a measure of my success for myself personally.

Cinematography of “Ready or Not” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

And here I’d like to thank Brett Jutkiewicz for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and on what went into telling the story of “Ready or Not”. The movie is available on a variety of digital platforms, as well as in the traditional physical formats. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.